Antonia the Pygmy Polar Bear

first published in ZOO! No. 23, Spring 2004
Journal of the Independent Zoo Enthusiast Society

Please note: the printed article was edited and “brushed over” thanks to Sam Whitbread on my request, thus here you will find only the draft version. If you have the journal at hand, better read it there.
 Unfortunately, when publishing of ZOO! Nr. 23 got late and it was time to deliver the pictures, I was travelling abroad. This website gives the opportunity to show the missing pictures - much more than could have been printed.


Several notes and speculations on Antonia the ”pygmy” polar bear from Gelsenkirchen Zoo following the article in Zoo! No. 21 made me dive into the archives to bring some forgotten facts back to light. I know Antonia for many years – since the year she was born, as I know realize.
The following was collected from a great variety of sources, from newspaper snippets, video tapes, information from the zoos, the studbook (kept in Rostock zoo), books and my own photos and notes. Nevertheless, there are some contradicting data, and I am convinced that there might be some more important details to be added by occasional readers.

Everything started when the city park of Karlsruhe, in which the formerly very small zoo was situated, was chosen as the site of the 1967 Bundesgartenschau (German Garden Exhibition), and was greatly enlarged. Along with most of the typical concrete buildings that can even be seen today like the carnivore house and the elephant house, a couple of bear enclosures were built at the foot of the Lauterberg hill, which is an artificial hill once containing the city’s water reservoir. [pics 1-3, by myself] These enclosures where regarded most modern then, showing large water moats with a composition of round concrete islands, a steep concrete slope upwards, and – most important – several quiet hibernating boxes for the females. When the bear enclosures were opened in 1967, 11 animals were shown there, including 1.6 two-year-old wild-caught polar bears that were imported directly from Russia: Male Nanuk and the females Nadine, Nadja, Nina, Silke, Tatjana (the 6th female is never mentioned again).

The next chapter brings us to 1979, when Karlsruhe Zoo proudly announced the first polar bear offspring. This was a extraordinary success which could then be repeated almost every year, even repetitious rearing twins successfully by their mothers. Karlsruhe Zoo soon became famous for breeding polar bears. Nanuk sired a total of 10 young that were exported as far as Chessington (2 in 1982), Tokio (2), and Mendoza/Argentinia (2 in 1981). All five offspring from 1982/83, by Nadine, Nadja and Nina, went to Circus Barum were they formed a very famous number. The zoo was very proud of them, and they appeared on several publications. [pic 5a] Nanuk died in 1985 and was replaced by Willi, born at Berlin Zoo in 1972, who came on loan to Karlsruhe every spring to fertilise the females as part on a breeding deal. [pics 4-5] Although (or because) he was a very big and powerful male – in 1985 he broke Silke’s jaw which had to be fixed with steel plates –, he became father of 10 more young until 1989/90, including the 6 young in 1987 which was a European record. More young went to other zoos, including Santander (the city zoo, not Santillana), and Mulhouse. A large number went back to Berlin Zoo at an early age for further rearing as part of the breeding agreement. In 1987, Karlsruhe Zoo claimed to show the largest group of polar bears (1,5) in Europe ”west of the river Elbe”.

The first time the female polar bears were filmed in their winter boxes while giving birth and rearing babies was in December 1987 by Dr. Klaus Sondergeld of the local TV station SDR. They chose Silke and Nadine, whose boxes had been prepared with remote-control cameras behind a glass screen. 18 students of the university on Karlsruhe watched the two bears around the clock, and later renowned wildlife filmer Kurt Hirschel (Stuttgart) joined them.

In 1989, 4 surviving cubs were born from 4 females. That year, the cameras of the ZDF (Second German TV) watched again Nadine’s and Silke’s boxes, with full film lights on. A 15 minute documentary by filmer Astrid Sabetzki was broadcasted nation-wide in early 1991 in the famous docu series called Telezoo by Alfred Schmitt. [pics 6-7, from this tape are the videocaps presented here]. The first female to give birth at 24th of November was Nadine to a cub that was later named Antonia, followed by Nina and Tatjana each with twins in mid December, the two surviving young were called Nancy and Hallensia (after the partner cities in France and the GDR). Silke, now in the age of 24, delivered twins on 22th of December, of which one died shortly after. [pics 8-9] The surviving cub Anton, named like hid half-sister Antonia after zoo director Dr. Anton Kohm, was documented well, showing suckling and care in detail. [pics 10-13]


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According to several articles, Anton was less than 500 g at birth (few, compared to the other young) and quite small. A few weeks later it was detected that Anton did not grow anymore and was too weak to stand up, [pics 14-15] in contrast to alert Antonia next door, playing and exploring [pics 16-17]. Antons mother had not enough milk. Thus, he was taken from her in the age of 3 weeks and handraised by keeper Maria Rüssel and her colleagues, using a big toy plush elephant as foster mum with its tusks as substitute nipples. [pic 18] This made wonderful colour stories in the yellow press (which I have in my archive thanks to my grandmother) that tell some more details.

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Even worse, a few weeks later Anton could not stand up anymore. X-ray showed that he had a pelvis symphsis, the femur joints not longer being fixed in their sockets, [pic 19] which might have been caused by the wet and slippery box floor during his first weeks. He got a corset and spent some hours daily in a kind of narrow box to strengthen the tissues. [pics 20-21] And then Anton got an strong angina and hardly survived.

Anton was 40 cm and weighted 10 kg in March 1990, being very agile and healthy. Boulevard magazines showed him playing on the zoo grounds and on a leach with the public (a quite common sight in those days in German zoos, I have similar snippets from several others). [pics 22-24]

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Shortly after, all other cups were taken from their mothers (a common measure to ensure the females would become pregnant again the same year), and exhibited in a bear baby room in the carnivore house. This spacious playground, tiled in blue with a big water area, was used in winter for hibernating pelicans and visible to the public though large windows. [pic 25 by myself 1990, pic 26] While Anton first struggled to catch up with his three half-sisters who already were able to eat fish, they all played together soon and made a wonderful lively exhibit. The ZDF documentary shows and mentions that Antonia was the most rude, playful and dominant, stealing balls from her companions. But to someone who knows the rest of the story, these scenes from that tape also reveal that Antonia at the age of 9 months already looked somewhat smaller with disproportional limbs. [pics 27-30]

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In Autumn, on 24th of October 1990, Anton, Antonia, and Hallensia were transferred to Wilhelma Stuttgart. Only Nancy went to Berlin Zoo, in contrast to newspapers and TV reports from the summer which said the cubs would all go to Berlin, or just Anton would go to Stuttgart. They inhabited the new polar bear enclosure in the newly opened area, replacing the old barred cages near the entrance. A 1993 TV documentary, ”Lebensraum Tierpark” by Felix Heidinger from BR (Bavaria Broadcasting) shows the almost full-grown Wilhelma polar bears playing with balls, [pic 40] stating they age three (Anton) and two (the new females Corinna (*1990 Rotterdam), Larissa (* Kopenhagen), and Hallensia), which is somewhat irritating as the latter should be the same age as Anton. At this point, Antonia was not longer with the group. Anton grew a lot, became a massive bear, and today he still is the breeding male.

Once more back to Karlsruhe to follow the fate of the breeding group. Although breeding continued for some time (4 young again in 1990), it had been obvious that the old concrete pits, quite worn down and leaking [pic 03, by myself from early 1999], had to be replaced. In late 1999 construction started for the 9 Million D-Mark Water Habitat enclosures on the same site. The animals were sent to Nuremberg Tiergarten meanwhile – the new male Yukon who was born in Cleveland/Ohio in 1989, Efgenia born in Karlsruhe in the 1990s, and the left-over original females Silke, Nadine and Tatjana (the latter obviously died shortly after).
On 29th March 2000, 18:40 hrs, a late visitor discovered the bears wandering freely around on the extensive Nuremberg Zoo woodland area. The alarmed staff members first tried to use anaesthetica, but falling dusk and the difficult and dangerous situation finally forced director Dr. Peter Mühling to give the order to shoot them. At 22:00 hrs, all four bears were dead. The following weeks, all newspapers were full of the case, animal activists reproached the zoo with insufficient security measures up to a conspiracy to get rid of the elderly animals, while city major and also Karlsruhe Zoo‘s director Dr. Gisela von Hegel defended the Nuremberg staff and supported the decision. Three weeks later, a psychological ill man was arrested and accused for breaking up the lock, but the full story is still uncovered and mysterious. Later in the year, the bears found their last rest in the new Museum of Art in Nuremberg, as part of a sculpture called “tödlich” (deadly) by Christiane Möbius, playing with wooden pyramidal ”icebergs”. [pic 41]

At the same time, the new polar bear enclosure in Karlsruhe was finished (inauguration on 13th October 2000). The vast area comprises large water bassins with underwater viewing, parts covered by strips of gravel, sand and grass, several waterfalls, an extensive amount of artificial rockwork, all towered by a huge artificial iceberg or glacier [pics 42-45, by myself 2002). It is now inhabited by the females Mien and Katrien, on loan from Rotterdam Zoo. The former bears were not forgotten – an exhibition informed for some time about them.
And, finally, also Nuremberg will see the completion of its new, greatly enlarged polar bear enclosure in 2004, next to the water landscape with beavers, otters, penguins and sea lions that was opened in 2001.

But what happened to Antonia? In Stuttgart, back in 1990, it became obvious that she fell back in growth more and more, and that she could not be kept any longer with the other animals. It is said that her pygmy growth was only discovered in her 2nd or 3rd year; that would fit the date. The next year, 1991, the animal went to Gelsenkirchen Ruhrzoo (on 26th March according to Stuttgart, or on 25th September as states the label in Gelsenkirchen), which then still was run by the animal trading company Ruhe. It is not clear if Ruhe intended to sell her again. Eventually she was put on the former baby bear exhibit near the entrance, a quite small and barren concrete platform surrounded by a deep moat. [pics 46, by myself in 1996]
Much was speculated what caused the stunted growth. Could be a genetical problem (but surely not due to inbreeding, as the mother was from the wild, and the father unrelated from Berlin). More likely, a physiological problem originating from a disfunction of the thyroid gland. Both cannot be treated. A large label explains this also to the visitors of the zoo. [pics 47-48, by myself]

Most important, Antonia never suffered from her handicap. She always was (and surely is) very agile and interested in her surroundings. She still invites keepers to play with her (of course, from distance, e.g. throwing rings and other toys). And she is famous for fake attacks towards visitors (acting as she was going to jump the moat), clearly enjoying the scared reactions from the public. I have seen that by myself - impressive.

Some facts:

Head and parts of the body are almost the normal size, but especially the legs are much too short.
Lenght: 1.35 m (compared to some 2.20 in "normal" polar bears)
Weight: 130 kg (ca. 320 kg in females, up to 600 kg in males)
Shoulder-height: 70 cm (150 cm)

Antonia became a favorite character for the Ruhrzoo, much loved by the public. When the complete transformation of the zoo into ”Zoom” reached her enclosure last year to give space for the new farm area, she was transferred to the old, empty bear enclosures in the rear of the zoo, where she is more remote from the public but enjoys more space and water. [pic 49] Only a few weeks ago, construction began for the new Alaska partition of the zoo, which will also comprise a large polar bear enclosure dedicated to Antonia, according to a recent press release from Gelsenkirchen Zoo.

Antonia’s life is linked to a successful polar bear breeding history, to some very fascinating individual life stories of these impressive animals, and to the construction of four new polar bear exhibits. Three exhibits will be opened in Germany soon (Nurenberg Tiergarten, Gelsenkirchen Zoom, Bremerhaven Zoo am Meer), several more are planned. Polar bears might be not the easiest animals to keep, but there are some good examples that it can be done properly. Let‘s hope that the new facilities will also mark the beginning of a new era of successful polar bear exhibition and breeding.

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(Please note: I tried to contact all authors of the photos and films shown, but with little success. It is not my intention to violate any copyright by publishing them.)
Website set up August, 2004.
Zoo-AG Bielefeld / Dirk Petzold